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The Selective Vision Problem of Western NGOs

May 14, 2011

One year ago, I wrote a post about recent Western NGO reactions to the new presidency of Viktor Yanukovych. The point of the post was to document the numerous hyperbolic reactions by NGOs to new regime and point out the fact they remained largely mute to similar such abuses during the regime of the West’s darling, Yushchenko. I simply found it difficult to believe there was such a drastic uptick in repression in a matter of months given my understanding of how the Ukrainian government works (ie repression no matter who’s in charge). What accounted for the change in tone was rather the West regearing their attitude toward a more Russian-friendly regime.

Still a jerk (Credit: Ingwar at ru.wikipedia)

A Ukrainian friend (who is much better versed on these matters than myself) and I had an exchange about my post. He felt I was being naïve about blatant criminality of Yanukovych and gang. I responded that my target in that post was the West and their ideology, not the Donetsk gangsters. Politically speaking, I believe the first targets should always be reserved for those closest to you (ie why liberals sit around all day whining about FOX is beyond me). I’m always happy to attack the US policies (thanks to the wonderful game of nation-states we’re currently playing) and those of the “West”, for which I’m complicit to a certain degree, before I start pointing fingers at Ukrainians.

Recently, the Kyiv Post, a newspaper I find to be mostly a propaganda rag and walking advertisement for the interests of the Western business in Ukraine, published provocative opinion piece by a Ukrainian journalist, Viacheslav Pikhovshek. Pikhovshek echoed much of my argument about the West’s selective vision when it comes to human rights and Freedom(c). He noted how odd it was that Yushchenko’s rather “undemocratic” manuevers via parliament in April 2007 and his use of the SBU (secret police) to denounce other politicians somehow did not find its way into Freedom House reports. He also listed these alleged abuses of journalists:

On May 24, 2007, the general prosecutor’s office becomes an arena for the clash of two law enforcement bodies, the special unit of Interior Ministry called Titan and the State Guard. As a result, Yushchenko issued a decree making all law enforcement bodies report to him.

Why am I reminding you of all this? These kinds of facts are too solid to just be brushed off. However, neither Freedom House nor any other Western institution (not to mention Western governments) considered it necessary in 2007 to publicly condemn the actions of Yushchenko and his circle. They simply pretended that they noticed nothing.
As far as freedom of the press goes, at the end of May 2009, four key anchor people were dismissed from 1+1 TV channel, while the channel itself was reoriented toward crime reporting in the news.

On June 12, 2009, the anchor of Novy Kanal, Volodymyr Pavlyuk, was dismissed after airing the video of then Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko saying “Propalo vse,” or “Everything is lost.” [A video clip shot before an official recording of her speech as a prime minister, in which she prays and argues with support staff about the text of her speech that disappeared from her monitor].

On Sept. 24, 2009, Pechersk district court in Kyiv banned “any unscrupulous information about Yulia Tymoshenko’s activities.” On Nov. 13, Pechersk district court in Kyiv dismissed an attempt by STB reporter Olha Chervakova to start a criminal case against parliament deputy Oleksandr Tkachenko”, who grabbed and then threw down her microphone.

On Nov. 28, 2008, internet journalist Nazar Tsapko was questioned by the State Security Service regarding his articles on daily.ua website.
All these incidents remain unnoticed by the Reporters Without Borders. You can check it yourself – there was not a single reaction.

Pikhovshek proves a very relevant point here: most of the Western NGOs, that is groups like Human Rights Campaign, Radio Free Europe, Reporters Without Borders, etc., operate not from some cleansed political space of ideological purity at the end of History (see Fukuyama), but rather from a very specific ideological-political coördinate (the eternal belief of liberal capitalist democracy as the only real political possibility left and the West’s God-given goal of bringing this idea to the rest of the world). I argue it is the myth that these organizations speak solely for “freedom” and other trademarked words by the West is just as deadly in the long-run as the criminal machinations of our friend Yanukovych. Perhaps once they come clean about their agenda or perhaps even admit that they have an agenda to themselves, that we can have a honest cross-cultural dialogue. As for Yanukovych, he is, was and will always be a criminal. His tenure will likely not make Ukraine a better place, well, except for his clan and oligarch buddies.

Another Ukrainian colleague noted the idea that Western NGO’s are steeped in their own ideology, is hardly news in itself. I agree the observation is not exactly revelatory. Perhaps Ukrainians are more cynical than their American counterparts, which is a good thing since to my mind, most Americans still believe we are in the business of bringing freedom to the world. And lastly, kudos to the Kyiv Post for printing an “opposition” piece. They do deserve credit for breaking from their party line. Now if they could only note clearly the difference between business advertisements and actual articles, one might be able to take the paper a bit more seriously.

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